Legal How-To: Protecting Your Invention

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on July 17, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

You've come up with an ingenious new idea for a product. So how do you protect your invention, legally speaking?

If you think you're destined to be the next Billie Mays, there are a number of steps you can take to make sure your brilliant idea remains yours -- and to keep others from making money off of all of your hard work.

Here are a few tips on how to protect your invention:

1. File a Provisional Patent Application.

If your invention is patentable, you can file a provisional patent application (PPA). A provisional patent is less expensive than a full patent and gets the ball rolling.

A PPA will let you label your invention with the status of "patent pending" for up to one year from filing. During that time, you can decide whether to file a full-blown non-provisional application with the USPTO for full patent protection.

2. Have Parties Sign a Nondisclosure Agreement.

If your invention isn't patentable (or isn't yet patented), you may want to make use of a nondisclosure agreement (NDA).

NDAs aren't as ideal as patents, but they make clear, in writing, that your invention is confidential and the parties privileged to know about it must not release any information to others without your permission. They're especially needed if you have to divulge some key info about your idea with various parties (like investors, partners and others).

Even if you have an NDA, make sure to disclose the minimum by telling "what" but not "why" or "how," the Idaho Small Business Center suggests.

3. Document the Invention Process.

For patent protection, it's always helpful to document your invention process, step by step. Keep track or keep a diary reflecting who has worked on what, dates of creation, and possible improvements or refinements. This can go a long way toward proving your idea was indeed yours, if that ever becomes an issue.

4. Don't Over-Share Your Invention.

You must also be very careful about when and where you publicly disclose your invention, as it may affect your ability to file for a patent in the United States or other countries, according to Intuit. Sharing ideas with friends might be fun, but the last thing you want is for someone to "borrow" your idea and beat you to market.

Need More Help?

Legally protecting your invention can be a straightforward process, but you may also run into a few roadblocks. For example, if your patent application is rejected, if you need help drafting a nondisclosure agreement, or if someone has stolen your idea, it may be time to consult an experienced intellectual property lawyer near you.

Are you facing a legal issue you'd like to handle on your own? Suggest a topic for our Legal How-To series by sending us a tweet @FindLawConsumer with the hashtag #HowTo.

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